The Empire of Signs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

This brief work, as delicate, fragile, and understated as a Japanese floral arrangement, is a translation by Richard Howard of L’Empire des signes, published in 1970 by Editions d’Art Albert Skira of Geneva. It is fitting that the words “Japan” or “Japanese” do not appear in the title, for this is not a book “about” Japan in the sense of informative commentary on Japanese culture for Western readers. Nor is it, while undeniably a part of the author’s oeuvre, a volume which will serve to introduce previously uninitiated readers to the unique world of Roland Barthes. Instead, The Empire of Signs allows readers who have acquired some familiarity with semiological discourse, especially as practiced by Barthes, to observe the ways in which the author’s encounters with Japan afford him the opportunity to contemplate the variety of signifying practices generated by that unique culture.

Throughout, Barthes retains his awareness of his own dubious status as a tourist. He remains, in every sense of the word, a “foreigner.” It is not his role to serve as a guide, to make Japanese culture intelligible, or to render it familiar. On the contrary, Barthes celebrates the great sense of relief that comes with his own “defamiliarization.” His text abounds in passages that suggest the Brechtian ideal of the Entfremdungseffekt (“estrangement” or “alienation effect”). For example, Barthes exclaims over his pleasure, as he walks the streets of Tokyo, of being engulfed by an utterly foreign language. He can take pleasure in unfamiliar sounds, rhythms, and cadences of speech without being distracted by the “real meaning” of any of these utterances. “That country I am calling Japan” is the self-conscious phrase that reverberates throughout Barthes’s musings, and this refrain reminds the reader that The Empire of Signs is neither a window through which to view Japan nor even a glass through which one sees darkly, but, simply, a text. That readers have learned to think of texts themselves as objects rather than as mere vehicles of meaning is part of the legacy of Roland Barthes.

Barthes’s enterprise in The Empire of Signs, however idiosyncratic, had its roots in his fruitful encounter with the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who proposed that a linguistic “sign” was composed of two elements: the “signifier” and the “signified.” While linguistics necessarily had to focus upon the signifiers, the readily available elements of language, Barthes, in taking up from Saussure the development of “semiology” as “the science of signs,” extended the search for signs into nonlinguistic areas, even while retaining his own penchant for literary criticism. The book Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972) contains some of his most memorable excursions in this vein.

The first essay of that collection, “The World of Wrestling,” is a semiological tour de force in which Barthes explores the levels of signification in the acknowledgedly false world of professional wrestling. What makes these matches satisfying for spectators, Barthes argues, is that the link between signifier and signified within each of wrestling’s “signs” is so obvious. Unlike most of life’s experiences, wrestling offers a spectacle wherein meanings are easily grasped. One never has to work at “getting the meaning,” and this itself gives pleasure. When he turns to the signs within Japanese culture (that includes a very different kind of wrestling), Barthes performs a quite different maneuver. Here, the link between signifier and signified is unnecessary, because the signifiers—that is, the surfaces, the masks, the decorations to be found in “that country I am calling Japan”—are themselves so satisfying. Barthes finds them so completely arresting and diverting that he loses any need to “go beyond” the signifiers (surfaces) to “meanings” (signifieds). The traveler in Japan, then, experiences an altogether different kind of pleasure which is divorced from understanding in the earlier sense of “getting the meaning.” Whether this is because “the real meanings” are beyond the reach of the cultural outsider or because Japan’s uniqueness lies in the total absence of meanings (“there are only signifiers”) is a conundrum with which Barthes teases his readers.

The Empire of Signs thus provides a restatement of the aesthetic concerns and semiological methods of Roland Barthes. The book serves another purpose, though it is one Barthes denies. On the very first page, Barthes writes: “Orient and Occident cannot be taken here as ’realities’ to be compared and contrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically. I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence. . . .” Despite this claim, it is easy to show that Barthes proceeds to indict the West in the best French tradition (Diderot,...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)

The Empire of Signs Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Commonweal. CIX, December 3, 1982, p. 665.

Library Journal. CVII, October 15, 1982, p. 1990.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 5, 1982, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 12, 1982, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 24, 1982, p. 65.